Students split on how staff should interact with them online

Researchers recommend training after survey also finds that while four in 10 respondents are uncomfortable about staff getting drunk with students, three in 10 don’t mind

July 3, 2023
Source: iStock

Researchers have called for all teaching staff to be trained in how to manage professional boundaries with students, after analysis revealed a grey area of personal interactions which could lead to sexualised grooming.

New evaluation of a survey of nearly 1,500 students conducted by the UK’s National Union of Students found that about nine out of 10 respondents were uncomfortable with sexualised interactions with staff, such as an academic asking a student out on a date, telling them that they were attracted to them, or commenting on their body.

However, opinion was split much more evenly when students were asked about a range of personal interactions. Typically around a third of students would feel uncomfortable if a staff member added them on social media, sent them private messages or arranged meetings outside term time – but a similar proportion said they would feel comfortable with such behaviour.

While 42 per cent of respondents said they felt uncomfortable about university staff getting drunk with students, 32 per cent said they would be OK with it.

Writing in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, the six authors – led by Anna Bull, lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York – say that this split of opinion “does not mean that [universities] should not pay attention to boundaries around personal interactions”.

They argue that a lack of clarity about where boundaries lie in staff-student relationships partially explains the high levels of sexual misconduct in higher education, and highlight that, while opinion was split fairly evenly overall, female and ethnic minority students reported feeling significantly more uncomfortable in such scenarios than their white and male classmates.

The researchers recommend that “reflexive understanding of professional boundaries” should be included in training for staff teaching in higher education, and that this should go hand in hand with “wider development of shared norms” within academic institutions and professional societies.

“Such shared understandings will go some way towards preventing sexual misconduct and other abuses of power being perpetrated by staff and will facilitate routes for students and staff to challenge unacceptable or inappropriate behaviours. Most importantly, such changes will then allow all students to benefit equally from the teaching and learning that is available at their institution,” the authors conclude.

Luke Brunning, lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, who was not involved in the study, said it demonstrated the need for staff to think about the way their behaviour could make students uneasy, and for institutions to develop clear professional guidelines.

“They would also acknowledge the ways that blurred boundaries can themselves leave students experiencing ambivalence and doubt about their status, either relative to a staff member or relative to each other,” he said.

“These experiences of ambiguity can themselves be harms, and even if they are hard to actively prohibit, a code of best practice would make a big difference.”

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Reader's comments (2)

I am surprised that there is even a debate about most of the issues raised. In the 1980s when I was an undergraduate, there were one or two staff members who would be seen worse for wear at student events but even then this was seen as rather sad and inappropriate. As for social media, it is usually students that contact me about LinkedIn and my response is that we should not connect when I am responsible for marking their work, since this strikes me as a conflict of interest. Sometimes, we need to remember that the university is our place of work and behaviour should be professional. If it is not, we cannot complain when we get subjected to yet more burdensome administration to prove that we are not bad people.
"Social media" is too vague. I have no problem adding students on LinkedIn or following eachother in Twitter. These are public, professional domains (Twitter less and less so). Instagram? No way